Imbued with Asian mythology, the photographs of Cameron Wolf embrace a Thai community’s creative response to HIV/AIDS
by Sean Black
Fourteen years after A&U first featured the subtly provocative work of Cameron Wolf, PhD, MSc, his artistic manifestations, paired with a heightened social consciousness, continue to break down global barriers while illuminating successful links between art, stigma reduction, and public health. His alluring work challenges Western sensibilities on the sex trade by confronting us with a compassionate look into the delicate humanity and sensitivity of a subculture traditionally looked upon with pity and shame.
His most recent exhibition, “Transcendents: Beyond Limitations—Living and Fighting HIV in Bangkok,” features eighteen black-and-white images on canvas, which channel Mapplethorpe mastery and classic Hollywood portraiture. Supplanted within the narratives of the photographs are references that draw from the artist’s own personal interest in the art and mythology of Thailand. Jointly sponsored by Dr. Wolf and Service Workers IN Group (SWING, Thailand)—an HIV prevention and care program that targets male and transgender (TG) sex workers—the exhibition opened in Washington, D.C., at the International AIDS Conference on July 22, 2012. The show, which was free to the public and attracted massive numbers of attendees and passersby in the Global Village, where it was presented, ran until the conference’s closing ceremonies on July 27.
In conjunction with the exhibition SWING members and performers Apinun Srisamutnak (nicknamed “X”), Rungroj (Roger) Madayung, and Chamrong (“Tee”) Phaengnongyang , from Thailand and featured in Wolf’s evocative work, danced and showcased condom dresses made by SWING members. This specially curated show is a culmination of three of Wolf’s previous solo photography exhibitions in Bangkok. All have been fundraisers for SWING—all of his sales’ proceeds went to the organization’s HIV prevention efforts, emergency care, and medicine, and, wherever possible, antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV-positive sex workers who do not have access to healthcare.
Established in 2004 with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Wolf’s employer, SWING provides health education, group activities, and an accepting social environment for sex workers of any gender. This is an important delineation as most initiatives in Thailand historically excluded males from outreach and focused primarily on females in the sex trade industry. SWING’s drop-in centers function as shelters and second homes for sex workers, providing an atmosphere that encourages learning and sharing of information on health, self-care, and support in a country with a staggering rate of infection, particularly in men who have sex with men (MSM). The latest HIV survey in 2010 reported that among the MSM community in Bangkok—a city of some 12 million people—HIV prevalence is thirty-one percent (forty-two percent among those over age twenty-five). However, for male sex workers, SWING’s key target rates are significantly lower—sixteen percent, compared with the aforementioned thirty-one percent for all MSM. SWING activities targeting male and transgender sex workers have been expanded to the resort cities of Pattaya, approximately 100 miles southeast of Bangkok, and Koh Samui, Thailand’s second largest island after Phuket.
Sean Black: First off, could you please explain the “condom dresses.”
Cameron Wolf: Thailand is a place that really values beauty and creativity. SWING’s members come together to create amazing haute couture dresses that feature intricate rosettes of condoms of different colors tied tightly together that look almost like flower petals. They proudly feature dozens of these colorful costumes in different venues where they capture attention and raise awareness of the people. Three Fates, one of the images that I had in the show, features three transgender SWING members modeling in the condom dresses. Additionally, the wings in the image, Naga With Monkey Army, are adorned with condoms by SWING members as well.
How did you begin your career as a photographer?
I always have loved the arts. I studied music from early years through high school and gravitated first toward sculpture and did a series of twisted
bodies emerging from the walls. I minored in photography during my undergrad studies at the University of Maryland while majoring in sociology and it just felt natural and easy. I had a cheap pawn shop camera and never used any expensive equipment or lighting. I always photographed people, but at first more as sculptures than portraits. I began to show my work in local group shows and then as benefits for AIDS organizations and the 1993 March on Washington for LGBT Equal Rights. This was a time when the AIDS epidemic was still raging out of control and I was exploring my anger and the way that AIDS changed the way that we see the world.
Describe the union of your passions as both an artist and Senior HIV/AIDS Advisor for Most At Risk Populations at USAID.
By the time I finished my B.A. in 1993, I had been picked up by the Nye Gomez Gallery in Baltimore and they featured a solo show of my work. They represented a number of amazing figurative photographers and I had to think long and hard about whether I wanted to go to art school or into health. When I got accepted into Harvard for public health, the decision was made. I remember my mother saying, “Nobody says no to Harvard.” At the same time, I have always been an activist. I knew that I had a calling to fight AIDS. I saw from the ACT UP days that art was a powerful tool at changing attitudes.
While at Harvard, I still continued shooting in my spare time and participating in a local art cooperative run out of the Noonan Gallery in Cambridge during my Master’s and then in D.C. with a gay artist group called the Triangle Artist Group (TAG) while doing my doctoral studies in public health at Johns Hopkins. While finishing my degree, I was recruited into government work at the very beginning of pilot work on bringing ART (antiretroviral therapies) to developing countries. It was an exciting time.
In 2006, I moved to Thailand and this is where the body of work featured at the 2012 AIDS Conference began. I always appreciated and supported local and underground artists and galleries and, while visiting a local show at an emerging gallery and alternative performance space, I found a perfect home for a show. I had been touched by the dedication of SWING and their incredible story working with male and TG sex workers and knew that I wanted to help them do their first fundraiser. It was an amazing success and featured performances by local and international artists, a condom fashion show by SWING, and an after-party from a British club promoter. So that was how it started. After that we had two more shows and SWING continued to develop and grow.
Your work is not aggressively disruptive. Do you feel that it invites rather than demands dialogue surrounding AIDS?
That’s an interesting question. While at Harvard, I did a show with the LGBT group for World AIDS Day that was censored. It received a lot of attention and it really made me upset. The show was allowed to be shown in full for the opening and then a series of images hand-picked by the Catholic House Master had to be removed, in particular, a Pietà representation of two men portraying Mary holding the dead body of Jesus. I think it was a provocative image and I know some of my images may push people’s boundaries. I think that’s part of art. But I would rather entice people into the beauty and mystery of the images, and let their own questions arise, rather than beating them over the head with the messages.
In your first Gallery interview with the late Rhomylly B. Forbes [A&U May, 1998], you were grappling with what you called then “a void.”
You attributed this emptiness to feelings of anger and confusion surrounding your own sexuality, gay rights, and the AIDS crisis at large. How has your work, as well as your own personal feelings on these subjects, evolved?
Another great question. Many things have changed dramatically from 1998. For one thing, the response to AIDS has grown dramatically from a time when some of the most important people in my life were dying. This represents tremendous hope, but at the same time it also shines a light on those who continue to be unable, due to homophobia and discrimination, to access prevention, care, and treatment. But LGBT rights are becoming a reality—it’s just a matter of time and we are on the right side of history. It’s healthier to focus energy in positive directions.
Furthermore, in the first interview you described your work as coming across as “dark and scary.” Certainly, this body of work, “Transcendents: Beyond Limitations—Living with and Fighting HIV in Bangkok,” reflects an equally powerful yet more hopeful tone. Do you agree?
Absolutely, I decided to focus less on the distortions of life and struggles, and more on stories of transcendence and people’s ability to transform themselves through their adversity and find peace.
Which artists/photographers have inspired your work?
There have been many. I love the surreal work of Czech photographer Jan Saudek, George Platt Lynes, and Man Ray; the homoerotic work of James Bidgood (Pink Narcissus); ironic representation by Cindy Sherman, David LaChapelle, Nan Goldin, and, yes, of course, I was amazed by Mapplethorpe. But I also love theater, music and fashion—I just saw the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition in San Francisco and was completely blown away.
How did you come to the name, “Transcendents”?
There were three shows: “Transcendents: Painted, Tainted, Sainted”; “Mythos”; and “Mime.” Transcendents is my way of focusing on the stories of those who are challenging barriers, of race, class, gender, sexuality, positive/negative status, and HIV. It’s about moving beyond expectations and redefining ourselves rather than being bound by society or someone else’s ideals. Transcending these boundaries is the essence of building self-awareness, but also embodies the empowerment needed to fight HIV.
Your examination of AIDS, especially how it has impacted sexuality is done with compassion and grace. What messaging are you trying to convey most and to which demographic(s)?
I think the key message is about challenging our expectations and limits. In this show, it showcases how boys and ladyboys in Bangkok have redefined their lives from sex workers to HIV counselors, models, artists, and as national leaders and human rights advocates. It also shows the beauty, humor, and proud history that are innate in the lives that some professionals simply see as statistics.
You noted that, ultimately, your convictions lie within bettering communication for HIV prevention and educating vulnerable populations
at risk for contracting HIV. How do you rate the effectiveness of art as a tool for gaining ground within the realm of public health?
Art touches people in a way that other media sources don’t. I can write an academic report on the HIV situation in Bangkok, and I do this, but I think visual and other sensory images touch people emotionally and I have been truly amazed at how many people have been touched by these events and have gone on to support SWING, through volunteering, featuring them in different venues where awareness is raised, and through the purchases of prints which go towards donations.
What future projects are you working on?
Now that I’ve moved back to the U.S., I would like to continue to show the work here as well as other venues in Asia and globally. I think I’ll produce a “Transcendents” book documenting this body of work. I consider Thailand my second home now, so I would like to continue to work with SWING, who have become part of my family. For the future, I have an idea to do portraits in different countries and am particularly inspired by gay activists making history in Africa and transgender activists around the world.
To see more images by Cameron Wolf and purchase in support of SWING log onto Facebook and “Like” his Cameron Wolf Photography page: http://facebook.com/cameronwolfphotography.
For more information about SWING, log on to www.swingthailand.org.
Editor at Large Sean Black interviewed Debra Messing for the November cover story.